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January 1944 Grace Anderson stepped out into the biting wind, clutching her father’s old lunch box. In the muted light of nearing dawn, the Superior Shipbuilding Company’s vast parking lot was so full that some latecomers’ cars were half on snowbanks, tilting at precarious angles, and the men emerging from them were sheepish or angry or chuckling, and other men were joshing them, the sounds carry- ing across the stillness as if across water. She heard the far-off banging of metal on metal, the creaking of cables, the screaming of machinery—the night shift finishing up as the day shift came on.
She saw Violet and Lena Maki, the mother and daughter who’d started as welders the same day as Grace last November, getting out of their neighbor’s truck; they made the long journey to town every day from their farm. She waved, but they didn’t see her. Not surprising, in this crowd of shadowy men in their dark wool coats, scruffy pants and boots, with pin-on buttons on their hats—member local no. 117; boilermakers and shipbuilders; solidarity. Grace’s muscles ached against her heavy clothes as she merged with the mass, moving toward the gates. She’d been working here only two months, but the smells of smoke and metal and worn-too-often-too-long clothes, the sounds of lunch boxes thunking against legs and boots crunching on packed snow seemed eternally familiar. Ahead, floodlights brightened the skeleton of a four-story-tall oceangoing cargo ship, the nearly completed hull of another in the opposite slip, the cranes hulking above both. In the farthest slip was a just-christened frigate with its sleek, pointed bow, proud superstructure, and low, flat stern—Grace’s favorite. The Coast Guard crew took this ship on near-daily test runs on Lake Superior; she would soon be heading for Lake Michigan, the Illinois Canal, down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and, from there, anywhere in the world.
Grace turned up her collar against the wind, thinking what a far cry this life was from what she’d dreamed.
But she laughed when she caught sight of Boots Dahlquist unfolding her six-foot frame from underneath a blanket on the floor of a Ford V8—Boots lived across the harbor in Duluth, Minnesota, and the fellows she carpooled with had elected her to hide out to save on tolls when they crossed the bridge to Wisconsin. “Worth the nickel, Boots?” Grace called.
“Don’t you know there’s a war on?” Boots said, unkinking her back.
Grace saw Lena hurrying toward them, cutting against the grain of the foot traffic. “Grace, I’ve got something to show you,” she called, and she was clutching a piece of paper in her gloved hand, waving it above her head.
The cold made Grace’s smile slow motion. “A surprise? You didn’t have to, kid.” When Grace had first met Lena, she’d worried that the girl’s billiard-cue wrists might break under the strain of the job, but she’d quickly learned how stubborn Lena was. She and Boots had started teasing that Lena’s bones were made of steel. “If you break, we won’t worry—we’ll just weld you back together!” Lena’s mother, Violet, didn’t seem to think that was funny, but there wasn’t much that she did.
Lena reached them, her pale skin flushed, her eyes the color of a low winter sky. When she smiled, her nose dipped like a divining rod. “I got a letter,” she said, and her voice was the chirping of a bird being carried away on a strong breeze. “From Derrick.”
Grace and Boots let out automatic groans. Lena and Violet often discussed Lena’s twin brother’s evidently limitless merits—one of the few subjects on which daughter and mother agreed.
Lena stamped her foot and pointed with a gloved finger at the text. “I sent him a picture of the four of us, and he wants to meet you! I mean, write to you.”
Grace was trying to shield her face from the wind. “For Pete’s sake, Lena, it’s cold out here. Let’s not just stand here.”
“He says, ‘She’s every bit as pretty as you described, and if she’s as sweet and funny as you say, I sure would like to hear from her, if she wouldn’t mind helping “boost the morale” of a poor, lonely sailor, sniff, sniff.’”
“Morale!” Boots said. “Now you’re in for it!” Everyone knew that any girl who refused to do her part to boost a serviceman’s “morale” was not only heartless but practically handing victory to the enemy.
Lena was serious. “He’s just joking with that ‘sniff, sniff,’ part, he’s got plenty of pen pals, but you’re from home, Hollywood.”
Lena had come up with Grace’s nickname supposedly because she looked “just like” the movie star Lana Turner, but since Grace imagined the real reason was that she always wore red lipstick and black mascara to work, it was a reminder not only that she hadn’t been blessed with Lena’s flawless pale skin and shadow-casting long eyelashes but also of the dream she’d deferred of going to Hollywood to become a costume designer. “Forget it, Lena. You know I have a boyfriend.”
“Alex Kowalski, Mr. East High 1942,” Boots supplied.
“Very funny,” Grace said. Her friends had given her a hard time because she’d draped her work locker with pink organdy and pasted up photos of Alex in all his uniforms—Marine, baseball, basketball—as well as of him and Grace together at the spring dance, graduation. “This isn’t high school, Hollywood,” Lena had scoffed, while Boots laughed and Violet frowned. “You’ve got to admit the place needed a little dressing up,” Grace had shot back, thinking there was no reason for anyone to be jealous. Alex’s pictures were nice to look at, but she hadn’t seen him in a year and a half. She still wrote him daily, but she didn’t tell him much. It wouldn’t do to complain about the cold weather and hard work of the shipyard to a boy who was off living in mud and mosquitoes, fighting a war.
Lena handed Grace a snapshot from the envelope. “Derrick’s the one on the right.” Two sailors in work dungarees squinted into the sun. Derrick, shorter and leaner than the other fellow, with light blond hair and a straight nose like Lena’s, leaned all his weight on his right foot and tilted his head with a just-perceptible smile, as if he was on the verge of asking the prettiest girl in the room to dance.
Written on the back was: Me and Grabowski in Calif. sun getting ready for our next big “starring roles,” Dec. 1943. Note authentic-looking “sweat.”
Lena said, “They’re in California, training in the desert.”
“Well, I guess I don’t need to hear about it, when I’ll be there soon enough,” Grace said, shoving the snapshot to Lena as Violet approached.
“Oh, Derrick’s picture!” Violet said, smiling. Grace didn’t know how Violet always managed to look like she’d just stepped off a propaganda poster, her pants and even her wool jacket pressed and clean, her boots shiny, the red bandanna covering her hair as bright as a rose. “He looks just like his father looked when he was young,” she said, her mouth relaxing into its typical frown. She’d made no secret of her anger at her husband, Jago, who’d signed Derrick’s enlistment papers so Derrick could go into the Navy at age seventeen, last summer. They hadn’t told Violet until it was done. “Except that Derrick actually is as nice a boy as he looks.”
Grace started again toward the gates, rubbing her face with her free hand. “Are we standing in this wind for our health?”
“I don’t see why you’d ever want to go to California,” Lena said, catching up. “You might be something special around here, but, out there, girls like you are going to be a dime a dozen, honestly.”
“I just mean, you think dull old Alex is what ‘home’ means, but what if you met someone from here you liked better? Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to have a new pen pal.”
Behind them, Boots whistled; Lena must have given her the picture. “I’d say it wouldn’t hurt one bit. You do realize he’s not really a movie star, though, right, Gracie?”
Violet laughed; sure, she’d think this was funny, of all things.
“Alex isn’t dull, Lena,” Grace said, her stomach tightening. “I don’t know why you even bothered telling your brother about me.”
“Well, we like to know everything that’s going on with each other, so of course I told him all about you, and now he wants you to write to him, and I just want him to be happy. Would it hurt you to do it?”
Just what Grace needed: another boy to tie her to this town. Obviously, he was only in California because the Navy had sent him there. Even worse, he was a farm boy, short, and too young besides—just eighteen, compared to her almost twenty. “You never know.”
“Derrick wouldn’t hurt you,” Lena said. “Never. Besides, I bet he’d tell you everything about California, and you’d find out it isn’t nearly as great as what you think.”
Grace got in line to punch her time card, tuning out Lena’s breathy voice going on to Boots and Violet about how ridiculous Grace was to dream of California, where they didn’t even have seasons. As far as Grace was concerned, that was a main selling point, as it should have been for anyone standing in this bitter wind in the dark on the crusted-over snow. On the billboard above the gate was the image of a soldier lying facedown, his stiff hand outstretched like a claw, showing the agony of his death. and you talk of “SACRIFICES”! canceling bond pledges won’t help.
She shivered, wondering, as she did every morning, standing here, if she was wrong to keep telling Alex they shouldn’t be exclusive, when he was off risking his life for their country. Talk about not doing her part for “morale.” Of course, when he’d left for the Marines, she’d been headed for fashion design school in Chicago, planning not to give her hometown a backward glance, and she hadn’t thought he should be made to feel beholden to a girl who had the whole world in her sights. But then, a month into school, she’d received the telegram from her mother about her father’s stroke, and the summons to come home to take care of her younger brothers and sister—her mother had to go to work. Riding the train back north to Superior, watching out the window the red leaves drifting to the ground, Grace had thought: A temporary sidetrack. He’ll be better in a month. But when she’d walked into her parents’ house and smelled the boiled coffee and rye bread and lingonberry jam and seen her father stranded in his bed, his body and face slackened, only his sparking blue eyes familiar, even as an apology lingered in them, a looks like we won’t be dancing to Your Hit Parade this Saturday night, Gracie, she’d known this was no drill, that she was in it for the long haul.
She’d taken care of him, her siblings, and most of the housework, for a year. Radio broadcasts of war news and FDR’s Fireside Chats seemed her only connection to the actual world. And then, last fall, her uncle, Jorgen Anderson—who, as chief loftsman, was one of the most important men at the shipyard—had called with the news that the yard was going to be hiring girls as welders, and paying them more than a dollar an hour. Her dad had grown well enough to shuffle around the house and keep an eye on ten-year-old Susan and six-year-old Ted when they got home from school; Pete, at fourteen, was old enough to look after himself, mostly. So her mother had encouraged her, saying the family could use the extra money, and Grace, tired of being the only girl in the whole USA not doing anything for the war effort, and wanting to save some money besides, for when her dad was finally back to normal, had signed up for the six-week training course, and now here she was, day after long, cold day. Yet she kept holding out on Alex, unable to stand the thought that she might end up stuck in this town forever.
It was her turn to punch in. She shuddered at the noise the machine made, handed her card to the attendant, and dragged her feet through the massive gates. The slab—the low stage in the yard’s center where all the beginning welders were assigned—was visible in the distance. Here, after burners had cut the steel into the sizes and shapes indicated on the ship’s plans, welders like Grace and her friends worked to fasten immense flat pieces of steel together, forming the large sections of the ship’s hull. Lying down on the below-zero steel was the worst part. No matter how many layers of scratchy wool and stiff leather Grace wore, the cold always seemed to shoot straight into her bone marrow. After an hour, she’d be so frozen that, when she tried to get up, her legs wouldn’t want to bend. Even in wool socks and work boots, her feet would burn like she’d soaked them in ice water, a disconcerting contrast to the hot stickiness under her arms and around her collar. Her head and neck would ache from her welding helmet and the intermittent bright flashes. Eventually, she’d get up and shuffle to the warming shack, elbowing between hulking men, peeling off her two sets of gloves, holding her filthy hands an inch from the black stove without feeling the warmth.
But the monotony of drawing flat seam after flat seam was almost worse than the discomfort. She’d asked her uncle if she might work for him in the loft, where he supervised the transferring of the engineers’ drawings into full-size paper patterns, which were then used to cut basswood templates of the ship’s pieces. Grace had thought the loft would be the perfect place to employ her three-dimensional imagination, but her uncle had told her girls weren’t being hired there. “The skills it takes, Gracie, and the amount of training,” he’d said with a shrug.
Lena caught up to her. “Did I tell you Derrick’s a really good dancer?”
“Very funny,” Grace said. She’d told her friends about Alex’s enormous feet, as graceful as canoes out of water; how, every school dance, she’d wound up taking her own bruised feet to the floor with a series of less handsome, less treacherous boys while Alex leaned sheepishly in the corner, drawing longing looks from girls who didn’t know any better than to wish he’d ask them to dance.
“I’m not trying to be funny.”
“Forget it, Lena, I told you, I don’t want the distraction.” Crossing the railroad track, Grace thought of the supply train that stopped at the shipyard daily to drop off gondolas full of steel and pick up empties; how she always imagined swinging up onto a boxcar’s ladder and riding to the main rail yard, then somehow finding a car that was on its way to California, stowing away . . .
Well, for now, she had to be content with trying for a promotion. The good welders got to do different jobs all over the yard, and she could imagine the many locations that would be more interesting than the slab—not to mention warmer.
Probably not as interesting as the loft, and not as warm as California, but still.
The clamor of the anchor was unmistakable.
“Lena! We’re going to get fired!” Grace said. A promotion suddenly seemed like the last thing she could hope for. Lena had told her they’d been invited by a crew member to have lunch aboard the frigate, and Grace had trailed her up the gangplank. But, with the anchor chain clattering, whistle blowing, and a voice blaring over the loudspeaker, “Last warning to unauthorized personnel,” Grace knew there’d been no invitation.
Lena winked, pulling Grace from approaching footsteps. “Relax, we’ll be back right after lunch,” she whispered. “Besides, they wouldn’t fire us.” She started up the nearest ladder; Grace surrendered and followed, fighting to keep her equilibrium as the frigate’s engines churned.
A long corridor, another long climb, the ship picking up speed. Around each corner seemed to echo a new set of footsteps; Grace’s nerves were high voltage. When Lena tried the handle of a heavy door, it opened, blasting them with arctic air. “Come on!”
The steel door slammed shut behind Grace. Clenching her teeth, she followed Lena up one more ladder, to the topmost deck, and caught up to her at the railing. Her face and lungs burned in the frigid air. “Lena, I cannot believe you—”
“Look,” Lena interrupted, gesturing to the horizon.
The frigate was cutting through churning ice chunks, passing through the swing bridge that connected Duluth and Superior. Across the harbor was the miles-long sandbar of Minnesota Point, doll-size houses dotting its length; beyond it, four ore boats clustered on Lake Superior. To Grace’s left, an immense freighter was taking on grain at Superior’s new elevators, said to be the largest and tallest in the world. Some distance to her right were the coal docks, where two ships were being filled with black cargo. The ore docks, where her father had worked, poked into the harbor beyond them. And when she turned to face south, she could see the whole busy city of Superior, spread out like it was bowing at her feet, darting cars and tiny houses bleeding into the distance.
It suddenly seemed possible: someday, she just might get out of this town.
“See how beautiful it is?” Lena said. “Why would you ever want to live anywhere else?”
Grace laughed, shaking her head.
Lena grinned. “Now, don’t think I was going to make you go hungry,” she said, pulling a wax-paper-wrapped pasty from her pocket. She tore it in two and handed half to Grace. Even cold, the combination of flaky dough, tender venison, and potatoes was as delicious as anything Grace had ever tasted—she understood why Lena scorned cafeteria food. Despite the freezing wind, she actually felt happy, standing here with Lena, watching Superior shrink in the distance as the proud ship forged its path through the harbor.
From the Hardcover edition.